We had a choice between gravel and grass and always chose gravel. Two blocks away, Garfield Park beckoned with a vast ocean of grass and trees, but we rarely went there. We were city kids, street kids, and the park was out of our element. We favored the Delano Elementary School playground with its odd mixture of hard-packed gravel and sand. My childhood friends and I hung out there, playing ball in the afternoons and into the night. We lived in a gritty working-class neighborhood on Chicago's West Side, but it was safe. The fifties were a safe decade. Few people questioned authority, and fewer still broke the rules.
On the east side of the park, everyone was black. On the west side, where I lived, we were all white. Italians dominated the neighborhood, but there were also Irish, Poles, and Jews. People stuck to their own kind. Race prejudice was the rule. Once, a black family moved across the park into an apartment a block from ours. Italian vigilantes made short work of them: rocks through their windows, racist slogans painted on their wall, insults shouted late into the night. The black family resisted until the first shotgun blast, then moved back across the park. Some of the rules were strictly enforced.
I was born the day after Christmas 1940, and despite my family's relative poverty I enjoyed a happy childhood with my parents and younger sister in a third-floor apartment across from the school. At times I had to pay a nickel toll to the little Italian gang leader for safe passage into the playground; at others I used my fists to resist. I had friends, plenty to do after school, and loving parents. Yet I knew from an early age that I didn't want the lives my parents and relatives had so cautiously built. The 1950s were the first period of calm after the twin traumas of the Great Depression and World War II. The grown-ups around me worked hard to protect secure but essentially boring lives. I wanted adventure and discovery.
My parents had been Jewish refugees as children. My mother came to America in 1912 at age three, fleeing pogroms in Latvia. My father landed at Ellis Island in 1910 at eighteen, in flight from the draft for the Austro-Hungarian army. They had but one year of college between them but were smart, well-informed, and respectful of learning. They were kind and loving to my younger sister and me, and my father worked hard running a small wholesale novelty business as he strived to give us a middle-class upbringing.
My carefree childhood ended at twelve when my mother required extensive surgery to remove a malignant tumor on her spine. The tumor led to a case of syringomyelia, a treatable condition today but one that then left her a semi-invalid in chronic debilitating pain. This was before families like ours had health insurance, so my father had to spend his life savings on her care. I resolved at that point, just as I entered high school, to earn what I could to ease his burden. I got after-school, Saturday, and summer jobs, and remained employed in that fashion for the next twelve years, until I completed my lengthy education.
Austin High School, which I attended with five thousand others between 1954 and 1958, was an academic joke. In 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik, the world's first space satellite, and shocked Americans into the painful realization that we were no longer winning the race to space. Life magazine picked Austin High to represent the sad state of American education. In a photo-laden article that contrasted a friend of mine from the varsity swimming team with a typical Russian high school student, Life slammed American scientific teaching. The hardworking Russian student was seen in various Moscow science laboratories, while my friend was depicted in pursuit of fun and games. One picture, shot from the back of an Austin classroom, showed students looking through racy magazines shielded inside textbooks and invisible to the teacher in front. Life achieved its purpose. Many of us were pushed into science curriculums to help overcome the widening "missile gap" with the Soviet Union that John Kennedy later used as the rationale for his 1960 presidential campaign.
But for me high school was a lark. I rarely worked hard, yet consistently got top grades. After school, I swam with the varsity team and won the city championship in the backstroke. During my first two years, I worked as a bicycle delivery boy for a local drugstore two nights a week and all day Saturday. Later, after getting my driver's license, I had a similar schedule delivering pizza. At fifteen, I worked full-time during the summer as a warehouseman loading trucks. At sixteen, the summer employment picture dramatically improved. Thanks to my swimming ability, I landed a job as a Chicago Park District lifeguard.
Being slightly nearsighted, I was assigned to a park pool rather than a Lake Michigan beach. The girls were at the beach, so I was crestfallen. When I told my father, he offered to "pull some strings." Several nights later, we sat in the storefront office of our local alderman waiting with the other supplicants who sought his favor. When it was our turn, my father explained the situation. The alderman turned to the precinct captain, who lived on our block and coordinated affairs between our neighbors and the city government, and asked if my parents were good Democrats. Yes, he answered, they always vote Democratic. Well, then, let's see if we can do something for their boy. Three days later I was assigned to the beach. It was my first taste of politics, Chicago-style. It would not be my last.
That summer was marvelous. I was paid $2 an hour, a princely sum at the time. With no concern for the future, I bought an old Pontiac for $150 and used it to learn to fly. Two years before, at fourteen, after building a lot of model planes, I had coaxed my father into paying for a ride in a single-engine airplane. When we lifted off Meigs Field, Chicago's old lakefront airport, I was in the co-pilot's seat of a Beechcraft. Floating over the downtown skyscrapers, we turned south toward Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox. The pilot then banked north, flew past the downtown skyscrapers and on to Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs, before returning to land. Only twenty-five minutes had passed, but I was hooked for life.
Pilots were the most glamorous of the celebrated warriors of World War II, and with the recent introduction of jet fighters they were more glamorous still. I thought being a military pilot could be the door to an adventurous life, even to the ultimate goal of space flight. So, whenever I could, I drove the old Pontiac northwest of the city to Palwaukee Airport, a small field with two grass strips and a short paved runway, to take flying lessons. My parents didn't like what I was doing, but it was my money and I would not be deterred. By summer's end I had twenty hours of solo flight time in a Piper J-3 Cub. It was enough to legitimately call myself a pilot, but not yet enough for a license to carry passengers.
Back in high school for my senior year, I thought of college for the first time. I knew nothing about higher education and assumed I would attend a two-year community college (they were called junior colleges then). My homeroom teacher, Virginia Heyse, noticed that I was curious and articulate and had gotten good grades with ease. She insisted I apply to the better schools, and when I objected that my family lacked the money for me to do so, she offered to help me apply for scholarships. Her intervention utterly changed my life.
The University of Chicago offered me full tuition. No doubt, I was a charity case, a poor kid with good grades and test scores from a culturally deprived environment. I knew nothing of the university's high academic stature, or why such stature was important. I was focused on the cost, and the scholarship meant that UC would cost no more than the local junior college. I was disappointed that UC didn't have a varsity football team or a Reserve Officers' Training Corps program to fast-track students into the military, two elements I had thought essential to college life, but neither did the junior college. My father was unable to help with expenses, but by living at home, getting a job at night, and commuting on public transportation, I could manage. On the basis of such primitive reasoning, I accepted the scholarship and unknowingly embarked upon a profound transformation. Three months later I would be a different person.
During Orientation Week in the fall of 1958, all UC students had to live in dorms, even the few commuters like me. I arrived on the sprawling and distinguished campus with its ivy-covered walls and gray stone buildings wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt. Over my shoulder I had a blue drawstring laundry bag with a few changes of underwear and some extra shirts. My classmates arrived with steamer trunks. They were the cream of the national high school crop. I was the token kid from Chicago's down-and-dirty West Side. Many of them had been educated at elite private schools in New York and New England and had studied subjects like psychology and calculus. I had never heard of calculus. They were conversant with art and literature. I had never been in a museum of art, never attended a concert, and never read a work of literature other than the three (A Tale of Two Cities, Wuthering Heights, and The Good Earth) I had been forced to study in what passed for a high school English class.
All of a sudden I was looking up from the bottom. I had hoped my education would be a stepping-stone to flight school and the space program, and I had naively thought that majoring in physics was the best way to get there. I should have been counseled to select another major, but was not. At UC there were Nobel laureates teaching the physical science classes. I could barely understand the lectures, and I became so confused and left behind I felt as if I had landed on another planet. How could school be so difficult when up to that point it had been so easy? Slowly, I began to realize that I had indeed landed in a parallel universe and that, in fact, my humanities and social science courses revealed another world I had never known, a world of books and ideas and critical thinking and intellectual curiosity.
My academic performance was dismal. I came close to failing all of my physical science courses. I was provoked by the humanities and social science classes, but felt completely at sea in them as well, having never known those fields even existed. Yet ideas began to stir, nurtured especially by the social science classes and new friends in the cafeteria and the campus poolroom, the one arena in which my West Side roots gave me a rare advantage. These new friends questioned traditional American culture and chafed at social constraints that seemed arbitrarily conformist and conservative. That, I could understand.
By the fall of 1958, a tiny beatnik subculture had emerged on the nation's elite college campuses. Its few adherents read the new Beat poets and ostentatiously rejected various social norms, especially dress codes, the girls making themselves visible with a new style, black tights under their skirts. Initially, I was enough of a jock to hold them in disdain, but then I succeeded in taking one to bed. There I learned that rebelling against society included rebelling against its sexual restraints, and the girls with black tights were leading the way. The beatnik perspective began to make sense.
I entered UC with a naive belief in god and country. Unaware of other cultures and ways of life, I had assumed that the United States was first in everything good and last in everything bad. Within months, my worldview changed dramatically. The humanities and social sciences classes at the university relied on the Socratic method, so I was forced to take part in the intellectual back-and-forth. UC had no graduate student teaching assistants, and the professors who led the classes taught critical thinking, no matter what the course content. Since I had to read voluminously in the classics and study both history and human behavior, my views soon exploded beyond the narrow American horizon in which they had been confined.
I wanted to participate more fully in campus life. My commute took over two hours a day. I swam with the varsity team in the afternoon and worked as a telephone solicitor at night. All of that, on top of my increasingly incomprehensible science and math classes, overwhelmed me. I left high school friends behind to spend time with new friends interested in books and ideas instead of sports and fast cars. But after one quarter I could no longer take the stress. I used my status as a varsity swimmer to get a cushy job doing minor maintenance in the field house. The higher salary, plus meager savings, allowed me to move to a dorm on campus. Then, in a stumbling and disjointed way, I embraced opinions that previously had been anathema to me.
Soon I too was in rebellion against the rigid conformity of the 1950s, a rebellion that was enhanced when Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso swept through Chicago. They were the most visible stars of the notorious Beat Generation, come to town to read their wild poetry. They set up in a small downtown ballroom. When my friends and I arrived, it looked as if all the bohemians from Bughouse Square, the local venue for soapbox oratory, had come too. The poets railed against the prevailing culture and were raucously applauded at every attack on conventional society. The Beats didn't wait for people to come gradually to their own conclusions, as our professors did, but instead hit them upside the head with their radical critique of contemporary American culture and social mores. Their poetry was laced with profanity never heard in public, and they took special pleasure in attacking the sacred cows of our conformist culture. My friends and I were smitten. We had never experienced anything like them, and we realized that if they could get away with that kind of behavior, so could we.
I doubt my friends and I could have clearly articulated it, but somehow we understood that much of society's moral authority had been undermined by the nuclear arms race and the Holocaust, two facts that deeply colored our perception of the world. The two most powerful nations on earth were poised to annihilate the human species, their nuclear weapons on hair triggers. Our government had already used those weapons against unarmed civilians, so it wasn't hard to imagine it doing so again. As schoolchildren we had been forced to hide under our desks and participate in useless air raid drills, which only reminded us that our death, indeed our actual vaporization, could occur in the next second and with no warning.
Copyright © 2011 by Bill Zimmerman. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.